The Cars franchise is like the “goofy uncle” that nobody chooses to talk about at family reunions. We acknowledge it at most because we have to and then move onto other chipper subjects. I didn’t think it could get worse for Pixar than Cars 2. Then I watched Cars 3.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is starting to lose his championship luster when a new rival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), speeds onto the circuit. Humbled and wondering whether his time is up, Lightning trains to be faster than ever and regain his title. He goes through a series of training struggles with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky racing coach. Lightning misses Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, posthumously reappearing) and seeks out Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Together, they plan to win back Lightning’s title and prove he still has what it takes.
I was ready for this movie to be over after its first ten minutes, and that’s chiefly because it repeats just about all the paces of the original Cars. Once again Lightning McQueen is bested by a new rival and has to re-learn the basics of racing, center himself as much as a car can, and open himself up to the help of others. Except the villain isn’t really a villain, as Jackson Storm is just a newer model. He’s self-centered and cocky, sure, but so was Lightning McQueen. He barely registers as a character and more as a symbol of newer, faster, more contemporary racers. If there is an antagonist in the movie it might actually be aging, which raises more questions about this Cars universe that I’ll unpack later. The plot formula will remind you of another franchise’s third entry, Rocky III. The hero is bested by a newer champ, seeks out a new trainer because their old mentor died, and there’s even a beach training montage. Then the movie goes from Rocky III to Creed in its final act, and I’m thinking why not remake Rocky IV instead? There’s already a robot butler in that one (it practically writes itself). Suffice to say, the generic formula of going back to basics and believing in one’s self, this time with fewer side characters, is even less interesting 11 years after the first film revved its limited story engine.
I was flabbergasted at just how lazy the storytelling was (there aren’t even that many car puns). It feels too much like a rehash without any memorable set pieces. There’s a segment at a demolition derby that has potential but it never really hits its stride and just relies on the initial particulars. The relationship between Lightning and the other cars is also rather weak. His new mentor Smokey is simply a surrogate Doc. The bulk of the film after the first act is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. It would have been stronger if there were more to her fledgling character. She’s consumed by self-doubt and gave up on her dream of being a racer, which should tip off every audience member where her arc is destined. She’s assertive, optimistic, and highly energetic, but her defining character obstacle is her self-doubt, which limits her. All she needs to do is gain confidence, which is a pretty straightforward solution in a sports film replete with training montages. I don’t know if she was told she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t “made” to be a racer, or if it’s because she’s a girl, so her perhaps her ascension can be seen as an improbably empowering moment for lady cars everywhere.
The most fascinating aspect of the Cars universe has never been the characters or the stories but the world itself. In a land of sentient motor vehicles, how are they born? We see them age but where do the little cars come from? How do they make anything considering they have tires instead of opposable thumbs? Why do the cars have teeth? What is the point of designating gender? Did any adult car tell Ramirez that she was a girl car and girl cars aren’t supposed to do boy car things like racing? How old is Doc’s mentor considering Doc died of old age? Where do the dead cars go? Is there a junkyard burial ground? Do they get recycled into new cars? Speaking of mortality, this entire world has to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape, right? There’s got to be like a Forbidden Zone, and just along the other side of a steep ridge is mountain after mountain of human skulls. The self-driving cars became sentient, following the SkyNet model, and rose up against mankind. In the ensuring thousands of years after, the sentient cars have adopted our ways even though they clearly don’t match up to their circumstances. They have forgotten the world of humans but are still trying to remake our world as theirs. Do these cars do anything other than watch races? Is this pastime the hierarchy’s form of bread and circuses? What kind of day-to-day existence do they have? Considering every living being is a motor vehicle that runs on fossil fuels, are the sentient cars aware of climate change and the greenhouse effect? Are they hastening the planet’s demise? What if inside every car were the mummified remains of a human inhabitant? What if during Lightning’s big accident a human skeleton pops out of the windshield? That might lead to an existential crisis in the Cars world that would make them rethink their place in history.
Somebody out there has to like these movies. I don’t know whom Cars 3 is intended for. It doesn’t present enough excitement or humor for children, and it doesn’t present enough substance and characterization for adults. It retreads familiar ground with lesser characters for lesser rewards. I knew every step of where this journey was headed, and without effective humor, characters, and surprises, I was tilting my head against my chair and just waiting for this mess to end. The reason there are three Cars movies is merely the profits Disney reaps from the toy sales and merchandizing (they estimate making a billion dollars in toy sales alone per Cars movie). There’s no other reason to supply the world three entries in the Cars universe before even getting a second Incredibles. The time with these anemic characters is not worth the 100 minutes on screen. I never thought I would reappraise Cars 2 but at least that movie had some exciting and colorful racing sequences and tried telling a different, albeit not successful story. Even a badly executed spy caper starring Larry the Cable Guy had something to it. In contrast, Cars 3 just goes in circles and expects you to be grateful for the same trip.
Nate’s Grade: C-
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.
In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.
For Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.
The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.
The fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.
The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Nate’s Grade: A
Universally regarded as the least involving and nuanced film in Pixar’s illustrious catalog, Cars was the last film I thought would get the sequel treatment. Was it a creative tale that yearned to be told on the big screen, or is this just a business decision motivated by the sound of merchandizing coffers? Those talking cars seemed pretty content by the end of the 2006 original film. It doesn’t take long to realize that Cars 2 was done strictly for the cash. A sequel to the least involving Pixar film, with an even less involving storyline and elevating the most annoying character (Mater the tow truck) to lead status provides little in the realm of adult entertainment. The storyline, a mistaken identity spy thriller, seems like a rejected plot for a lesser direct-to-DVD sequel. While the visuals are still outstanding, the humor is stuck in neutral, overloaded with motor vehicle puns and groan-worthy visual gags. The message about accepting your uncouth friends no matter what their bad behavior might be seems rather misguided. That’s the message? Congrats Pixar, for providing cover for irresponsibility and incivility. The environmental message and its connection to a Big Oil conspiracy feels tacked on as an afterthought to try and crowbar in something more meaningful than a mediocre spy farce. I think cars are rather limited in their anthropomorphic expressions. There’s only so much they can do. And a world populated completely by living, breathing, gas-guzzling (can they get drunk on ethanol?) vehicles begs for an examination on how this world operates without any opposable thumbs. After a magical slate of films that dealt with serious mature themes and danced with storytelling finesse, it’s a shame that daring run comes to an end with such a rudimentary roadblock. Little kids will be entertained by all the bright colors and simplistic storytelling, but I cannot foresee too many fans of Cars even justifying the sequel’s existence. It’s not out rightly bad it’s just so pitifully pedestrian. Cars 2 has so little going on under its hood, you’ll swear it came from a different maker.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The dog dies. There. You’ve been warned. I feel that everyone walking into this movie needs to know exactly what they will endure. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known (so spoilers already, folks). The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.
So there it is. I feel that every interested party in Marley & Me needs to know what will devastate them in the end. The film follows the marriage of John and Jennifer, who both work as reporters in Florida. She’s got the better gig, and he’s running around town tying to report on methane leaks and writing obits. John envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and the fame and credibility he has as a serious journalist who travels the globe. Sebastian suggests that John get his wife a puppy to delay her biological clock. And so one fateful day, John blindfolds his wife and takes her to a puppy farm. She picks the cheapest puppy out of a pack of Labradors (Note to self: there is always a reason a puppy is cheaper than its peers). They name the new addition Marley. John’s cantankerous editor (played by the cantankerous Alan Arkin) orders him to start writing a column. He’s absent column ideas until he starts writing about the comic misadventures of owning a dog. The column becomes a hit and Marley becomes a boon of inspiration, when he isn’t eating everything in sight, edible and non-edible alike.
Marley & Me is a curious creature. Much of the plot follows a repetitious formula of Marley being destructive. He eats pillows. He chews on clothes. He eats drywall. He bursts through a screen door. He chases after people. He eats plants. He eats jewelry. He eats anything and everything. Probably half of this movie is watching Marley destroy something while John and Jennifer run around. For a decent portion, Marley & Me will play out as a cautionary tale to parents about dog ownership. Now, for pet owners, the movie will be seen as amusing and truthful, and I can attest to this. My two-year-old mutt Atticus will routinely chew on things he is not supposed to, notably my wife’s shoes and underwear (we still love him). However, I’m not about to turn this quirk of pet ownership into the majority of a screenplay. If you eliminated Marley from the story all you wouldn’t be left with much to warrant watching.
The rest of the film really focuses on the nuts and bolts of holding together a marriage. John and Jennifer have three children and their marriage experiences some strained times, but they bounce back. They’re both fairly nice people. The non-dog moments of the film play out in equal amounts of mundane and fantasy. The mundane moments are mostly the marital glimpses between john and Jennifer, where we see them engage in realistic arguments and conflicts and reach believable resolutions. The fantasy angle occurs whenever we flash back to John’s writing career. John is ordered to take a column, and then when he’s offered it full-time he wavers. His editor then quickly says he’ll double his salary. The movie is also filled with little moments where everyone tells the main character how great they are, how special what they’re doing is, and this always feels too hackneyed for me when the main character is also the author. It’s ego stroking (look out for the main character of Nate Zoebl to be dubbed way too awesome by every other character in the upcoming film, “The Life and Times of Nate Zoebl — Man of Humble Awesomeness”). Most of the time spent at John’s work is boring, probably because most storylines would be boring when compared to the wacky antics of a dog.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) shepherds the comedy along nicely. The pacing is swift for a two-hour dog movie. Frankel includes a peculiar sequence shortly after John is assigned his column. John rapidly narrates the next few months of his life with Marley, and the movie cranks up the speed on the visuals. It strongly reminded me of a similar experience in 2002’s Rules of Attraction, where Victor (Kip Pardue) quickly narrates his months of debauchery spent in Europe. It’s a strange connection to be made with a family film.
Marley & Me is definitely going to hit people in different ways. As a loyal dog owner, it made me want to rush home and hug my 45-pound fuzzy baby. The movie presents the chaos of life as something to be cherished, much like Marley. It channels Wilson’s lackadaisical charm and the movie comes across as amusing, chipper, and then downright wrenching once the old dog’s time has come. I’ve been reading about angry parents and grandparents that took their young ones to this movie and then left with crying, shell-shocked little tykes. These people feel that it is wholly inappropriate for young ones to be subjected to the trauma of losing a loved one. Apparently they didn’t read a review where the author’s first sentence was, “The dog dies.” I don’t think Marley & Me will be responsible for therapy bills but this flick examines the enjoyment and heartache of pet ownership like few others. And yeah, the ending is laid on really, really thick, but it shows how a creature could destroy many of your personal possessions and still be considered man’s best friend.
Nate’s Grade: B
This is a case where a movie feels stuck between two different aims. The premise of a group of geeks hiring a bodyguard to protect them from high school bullies feels dramatically dated, like an idea that John Hughes could have cranked out over a weekend in the 1980s. Owen Wilson stars as a homeless Army vet that agrees to be the bodyguard but he intends to fleece the kids of their money. Eventually the film culminates in the geek trio violently fighting the bully, which is kind of a weird climax to a mainstream teen-centered film. The main bully is actually psychotically dangerous and the movie exists in a realm where every adult character is a cretin or a moron. Don’t even think about security in the school. The jokes aren’t as lively or clever as the movie would like to think, but special credit must be awarded for collecting a group of teen actors that look authentically geeky. Drillbit Taylor is a safe vehicle for Wilson because he’s played a variation of this zen-cool character in many movies. I’m honestly surprised that Seth Rogen is a co-writer and that Judd Apatow produced this flick. This is noticeable below their standards. This movie isn’t anything special and it’s tonally all over the place, but then it does have some funny situations, some amusing character interplay, and some dependable slapstick. Think of it as a sanitized PG version of Superbad combined with an 80s movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I’m starting to think Wes Anderson may become his own worst enemy. The man seems trapped in his precious, idiosyncratic style that revolves around intricate, dollhouse-style production design, slow-motion and simple pan shots, clever-to-smug characters, family dysfunction that coalesces somewhat by the end, and a soundtrack full of hip, retro songs. I like Wes Anderson; I loved his first three films, was rather lukewarm on 2004’s Life Aquatic, but The Darjeeling Limited is pretty much a bland rehash of the same. Instead of a father reconnecting with his long-forgotten son it’s three brothers reconnecting in the wake of their father’s death and mother’s abandonment. The humor is fairly subdued and while the movie is brief it seems to run out of gas early on and get repetitive. I think Anderson is more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets. I didn’t feel a blip of emotion for any of the character, all of who have some lasting fear of women ever since their mother ran out to become a nun. There’s kind of an unsettling misogynistic vibe in the movie against women, which is an unfortunate surprise. There’s a spiritual quest that some may relate to but I found it superficial at best, intended to gloss over the plot holes and character miscues. I wish Anderson well, but his next venture behind the camera might work better if he threw out his fraying filmmaker playbook.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Night at the Museum works because of the possibilities of its fun premise whereupon all the dusty items at New York’s Museum of Natural History come magically to life when the sun sets. I think every wide-eyed kid at some point had the same dream. Whether the movie taps into that childlike wish or panders to it is up for speculation. No doubt, this is a special-effects heavy family film that doesn’t aim its sights very high. Some storylines misfire like Ben Stiller’s tour guide love interest, Teddy Roosevelt (a very game and well cast Robin Williams) and his unrequited love for Sacagawea, and, in fact, a lot of it comes across as amusing but not very funny. The emotive bits feel awfully clumsy. But Night at the Museum has just enough to stay lively and remain unexpected enough to delight. Stiller works his usual shtick but remains the best comedic meltdown actor we have. The biggest surprise was seeing 86-year-old Mickey Rooney serve up some beat downs. I could easily see this becoming a franchise and I’m sure the studio has the same thing on their mind. Night at the Museum is a fun diversion for the holidays and will surely increase museum attendance nationwide. There are worse things than a film inspiring renewed interest in history.
Nate’s Grade: B
While I’d never call Pixar’s latest animated film a disappointment, it is the company’s first speed bump in their unprecedented reign of unmatched quality. Cars is technically dazzling; it’s almost redundant to say a CGI film is the best-looking ever because the technology keeps improving with time but Cars is incredible to watch. The lushly painted vistas, the way light gleams on surfaces, the blurs of color, the near-photographic likeness of cars themselves, this is a beautifully animated film, obviously. What isn’t as beautiful is the lackluster storyline. I can feel Pixar’s heart in the right place but they don’t put enough effort to touch our own hearts. Cars lacks the depth of Pixar’s other features. The two Toy Story films managed to take a kiddy concept of the secret life of toys when no one’s watching and infuse it with serious moral dilemmas and a mature insight into mortality and community. In Cars, the main storyline involves a cocky hot rod Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who lives in a glitzy world that revolves around him. He goes off the beaten path and finds himself trapped in Radiator Springs, a tiny town that’s all but been dried up since the interstate took folks away from them. There, Lightning learns there’s more to life than material riches from this eclectic mix of good, honest small-town folk. What I’ve just described to you could be the plot of hundreds of movies championing the likes of small town folk. They surprisingly never really go much deeper, though Paul Newman is terrific as an old time car that had a taste of the glory and arrogance way back.
This is the first Pixar movie to exist in a world without humans, which begs the question how living automobiles were able to construct their world minus opposable thumbs. Cars themselves are weirdly inexpressive creatures.
The climax to Cars is suitable and heartfelt but the movie, at two hours in length, sputters a while in the middle. This is the first film directed by Pixar’s big cheese, John Lasseter, since 1999’s Toy Story 2, so excuse me for expecting a little more. Still, the movie is certainly fun, exciting, more cute than funny, and it has a genuine sweetness to go with its visual prowess. I just wish the 8 credited screenwriters, including Lasseter himself, had revved up their imaginations a bit more beyond the conceptual stage. Cars isn’t a great movie, but coming from Pixar, it’s still very good. Hey, anyone that can make the voice of Larry the Cable Guy tolerable deserves my thanks.
Nate’s Grade: B